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Movie house lights up Main Street again

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When Hildy Morgan rounded up a few friends in 1996 to restore an abandoned movie theater in their Pennsylvania hometown, she didn't expect any opposition from the community. But she got it.

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"Some people in town thought we had no business doing this," says Ms. Morgan. "They couldn't make the connection between this and helping the economy." But those who felt this way, she says, have "since been proven wrong."

With the help of community volunteers, fundraising events, grants, and government assistance, the two-screen Dietrich Theater officially reopened in August 2001, pumping both movies and money back into the local economy.

But more recently, Ms. Morgan's larger vision began to take shape.

"I wanted this to be a real arts center," says Morgan. "And a place for the kids in town to experience all the arts." The theater now sponsors cultural events, ranging from children's art classes to after-school playwriting for high school students.

Efforts from people like Morgan and conservationists across America have helped switch the lights back on along Main Street, turning historical movie houses into "cultural destinations."

The Los Angeles Conservancy is preserving several theaters in a concentrated area of Broadway in L.A., where they show classic films and rent out the theaters for special events like weddings and graduations.

In Chicago, the Uptown Theatre is being renovated. Upon completion, the renovated facility will consist of three theaters, an art gallery, a small museum, and a radio station. In western Massachusetts, the Berkshire Opera Co. is turning a historic theater into an opera house.

Like many of these old theaters, the Dietrich Theatre - a vintage 1936 Art Deco movie palace - was built during the Depression. Its home, Tunkhannock, is nestled in the Endless Mountains region of north-central Pennsylvania. Population: 4,300.

"People in town all had wonderful memories tied to that place - Saturday matinees that lasted four hours, first dates, the place where they proposed to their wives," Morgan says, laughing.

But hard times closed the place down in the 1980s, and residents who wanted to see a movie faced a 35-mile drive to Scranton.

Businesswoman Lori Bogodin, who, with her husband, owns the Twigs Cafe and the Spice of Life Shop down the street, echoes the sentiment of other residents when she says: "The downtown was dying. Here was a good idea, a great idea, but it took us years to pull it off."

The restoration committee located an architect to help design an authentic interior. The lobby was turned into an art gallery, with display cases featuring works by local artists and works on loan from Scranton's Everhart Museum.

Volunteer Nancy Aiello spearheaded a campaign to have residents sponsor a seat for $150, giving them an inscribed brass plaque. All 312 seats were sold. Following fundraising events, legal tangles, and endless inspections, their nonprofit organization, the Wyoming County Cultural Center Inc., bought the theater for $170,000.

For Margie Young, a retired librarian, the opportunity to run an arts program was "a truly exciting challenge" to bring art, theater, and musical programs to this area.

In one year, she has pulled together nearly 50 different events, ranging from children's art classes, puppet shows, concerts (jazz, folk, and classical), and an after-school playwriting and performing program for high school students.

For example, in one week in early August, 21 children learned about ancient Egypt. All the children created their own costumes, invented characters, and wrote scenes for their fictional personas.

The Dietrich also stages plays. Tom Flannery is a local musician whose play, "God and the Ghost of Woody Guthrie," received its world première at the Dietrich last winter.

"They were all incredibly accommodating," says Mr. Flannery. "Hildy said, 'Tell us what you need.' We built a set and rehearsed there after the movies ended. They did great promotion and publicity, and our show sold out all four performances, and we even did a special show for high school kids. It was a great success - and we all got paid!"

It paid off for Flannery in other ways. His play has since been performed in other theaters, and the Dietrich has invited him back to present an evening of one-act plays in October.

Mainstream movies, which provide the real cash flow for the operation, will soon be balanced with independent films and documentaries. Next month, the Dietrich will launch its first Fall Film Festival, showcasing 14 US and international films in its smaller theater.

And the enterprise is pumping more than movies and culture into Tunkhannock. The theater now employs a staff of 22 full- and part-time workers, adding $120,000 a year to the local economy.

It's been such a success that Morgan is already planning to expand.

"We're negotiating to buy the property next door, an abandoned gas station and mini-mart, to build an extension," she says. "It would be great to have one or two more screens, and beyond that - a performing arts theater, room for classes, studio space, who knows?"

Retired dentist and part-time projectionist Dr. Esther Harmatz attributes the project's success "to the fact that we're not afraid to try new things." She says, "this place was a neglected gem in downtown Tunkhannock. It's a dream fulfilled, and the dream continues to grow."

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